How the clutch works


We winced at just about every swing Vladimir Guerrero took the other night. He struck out on a pitch in the dirt. He swung at a pitch that bounced far in front of him, a wild pitch by description and in the box score too.

We wished he had a little Derek Jeter in him, a touch of Captain Clutch.

Jeter is the star in October, over and over. He has a walk-off home run in the World Series, a leadoff home run in the World Series, a 14-game hitting streak in the World Series -- hit after hit after playoff hit.

“He’s clutch,” said Dodgers coach Larry Bowa, who coached Jeter in New York. “He likes this time of the year.”


We hear that all the time, and we wonder.

How much of this is truth, and how much is Yankees mythology? Is clutch hitting truly a skill?

“The skill is probably having a lot of opportunities,” Jeter said. “I don’t know if you would call that a skill.”

Jeter is on to something there. He is the all-time leader in postseason hits. He also is the all-time leader in postseason games.

His career batting average is .317 in the regular season, .311 in postseason play. Pretty good either way.

Yet, if we consider performance with runners in scoring position as a measure of ability to hit in the clutch, the numbers do not support the nickname. Jeter’s career averages with runners in scoring position: .311 in the regular season, .253 in the playoffs.

Statistical analysts long have debated whether clutch hitting is a skill, and how it might be measured.


Bill James, the godfather of modern analysis, has struggled with this issue. In a Sports Illustrated article in 2007, James explained how he had devised a seven-point system -- taking into account such variables as how late in the game a batter hit, how close the score was and how good the opposition was -- and determined that David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Chipper Jones rated highly as clutch hitters.

On the other hand, James wrote, he was wary of using what he said might be a “random data outcome” to conclude that “those who come through at key moments of the game have reached down deep inside themselves and found the strength and courage to succeed.”

Yet that is exactly why baseball executives rave about Jeter, and about what they say is his extraordinary ability to take a deep breath and deliver rather than yield to a rapid heartbeat in October.

“The game doesn’t speed up for him,” said Dodgers Manager Joe Torre, who managed Jeter on four World Series championship teams.

“You’ve just got to try and relax,” Jeter said. “The more you relax as a player, that goes hand-in-hand with performance. Don’t get me wrong -- you can relax and fail.”

We can’t measure the ability to relax. Yet the fact that Jeter would even utter the word “fail” in October tells us he is not worried about falling flat on the big stage, not affected by a spotlight that might unnerve another player.


“The most underrated skill most people mis-evaluate is the head,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “His head is off the charts. It allows him to keep himself in a certain frame of mind under any circumstances.”

Some teams look at on-base percentage as the primary statistic in evaluating their offense. Scioscia looks at batting average with runners in scoring position, so he must consider clutch hitting to be a skill.

“Absolutely,” Scioscia said. “A clutch hitter is a hitter that can maintain his approach under circumstances which are critical to a team winning or losing a game. Some guys struggle in those situations. Some guys allow themselves to be overmatched.”

Jeter hit a home run the other night. Guerrero did not, extending his streak of postseason at-bats without a home run to 96. In the regular season, Guerrero averages one home run every 17 at-bats.

This is not to say Guerrero is overmatched, no matter how ugly his swings appeared the other night. He did get the game-winning hit against Jonathan Papelbon in Boston. He leads the Angels in postseason hits, with six.

Clutch hitting might not be for real, but neither is Superman, and still Guerrero usually wears a Superman T-shirt beneath his uniform. Superman ought to have some super power.



Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.